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BOOK REVIEW

‘Jesus and John Wayne’ untangles gender messages in white evangelical circles

Joey Macalle for The Boston Globe

On June 12, 2016, I joined my mother and some relatives for a concert by the Christian group Gaither Vocal Band in Carmel, Ind. About a month earlier, on May 3, Donald J. Trump had been confirmed as the presumptive GOP nominee in the upcoming presidential election. Attending despite already being non-religious and uncomfortable in a crowd like the one drawn in by Bill Gaither in his home state, I was somewhat heartened when he declared at the outset that we should set political differences aside for the afternoon as we worshiped God and enjoyed gospel music.

I don’t remember if the band performed “Jesus and John Wayne,” the 2008 song that Kristin Kobes Du Mez chose as the title for her “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.” But Gaither’s exhortation to focus on the gospel rather than politics is in keeping with the more “tender” version of white Christian masculinity that Du Mez identifies as prominent in the 1990s and that she associates with the song, which locates ideal Christian manhood “somewhere between Jesus and John Wayne.” Most of Du Mez’s impressive book, however, is about the historical origins and present ascendance of a more militant Christian masculinity — less Jesus and more John Wayne, in her framing — that has culminated in white evangelicals’ steady and unflinching support for the swaggering, immoral Trump.

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The book’s narrative arc begins and ends at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa, on January 23, 2016, where Trump infamously declared that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn't lose any voters.” Dordt happens to be Du Mez’s alma mater, and Sioux Center her hometown. “I wasn’t in Iowa at the time,” she writes, “but I watched this spectacle unfold as it streamed online.” Establishing her positionality as the daughter of a theologian and a Christian school PE teacher, Du Mez recalls, “Standing on the stage where Trump now stood, I had led prayers, performed in Christian praise teams.”

That January, she was horrified to see evangelicals “waving signs, laughing at insults, and shouting back in affirmation.” She laments, “I wondered who these people were. I didn’t recognize them.” By the end of her book, however, Du Mez concludes that evangelical Trump support, which from early on in Trump’s term has been highest among evangelicals who attend church frequently, “shouldn’t have come as a surprise.” She asserts flatly, and correctly, that in choosing to back Trump, “evangelicals hadn’t betrayed their values.”

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In between, Du Mez more than adequately substantiates her thesis that evangelical Trump support represents “the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.” The author of a book on Christian feminism and a full professor of history and gender studies at the Christian Reformed Calvin University, Du Mez leads us with apparent ease, as only a seasoned historian can, from the days of Teddy Roosevelt and Billy Sunday, through the early Cold War mainstreaming of Christian nationalism and the subsequent white evangelical backlash against the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam protesters, into the rise of the Christian Right as a powerful voting bloc that crystallized in the 1980 election, and finally on to the present. While I occasionally found myself wanting more primary source illustrations of a particular point, for the most part, Du Mez holds her abstract narrative and concrete examples in expert balance, keeping the reader engaged through her lively, colorful prose.

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Uniquely with respect to a recent spate of popular histories of evangelicalism, Du Mez brings a gender studies lens to the subject. The book affords a great deal of attention to the influence of conservative men in evangelicalism, from John Wayne and Mel Gibson to Oliver North, James Dobson, Ted Haggard, John Piper, and Mark Driscoll. But Du Mez also takes white Christian women’s investment in the enforcement of patriarchal norms seriously, giving the Catholic anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly due credit along with men like Jerry Falwell Sr. in bringing evangelicals around to opposing abortion and profoundly shaping the Christian Right. Du Mez reminds us along the way that right-wing Christian bathroom politics are nothing new, as opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment once argued that its adoption would lead to the adoption of unisex bathrooms.

Du Mez’s subtitle, “how white evangelicals corrupted a faith and fractured a nation,” hinges in part on a theological, rather than historical, argument. But Du Mez’s theological position is established subtly in a book that cannot be called polemical, even if it indulges in the occasional delicious bit of academic snark, as when Du Mez calls Christian apologist Josh McDowell “an evangelical pseudo-intellectual” or wryly observes that “God had told Pat Robertson to run for president, according to Pat Robertson.” However, chapter 16, “Evangelical Mulligans: A History,” is, if not exactly a theological argument, a well-informed and powerful exposé of how patriarchal theology, developed of late in particular by New Calvinist evangelicals, “puts female victims in impossible situations,” allowing physical and sexual abuse to proliferate in evangelical institutions.

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It is impossible to do justice to the richness of “Jesus and John Wayne” in a short review, but one of the key points the book stresses is that as Christian nationalists, the vast majority of white evangelicals believe that our country’s flourishing depends on aggressive male leadership. The pervasive abusive patterns of white evangelical subculture replicate themselves on a large social scale in the Christian Right’s politics. Since understanding this will be crucial if Americans are to have a functional democratic future, “Jesus and John Wayne” is a book that America needs now. I hope it will be widely read.

JESUS AND JOHN WAYNE: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristin Kobes du Mez

Liveright, 368 pp., $28.95

Holding a Stanford PhD in modern Russian history, Chrissy Stroop is an ex-evangelical writer living in Portland, Ore.